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NEAR Warning System Never Happened

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I’ll bet you have never heard of the NEAR warning system. This effort to put nuclear attack warning buzzers in every home and office was a near miss. 

Towards the end of the CONELRAD era, there were plans for nationwide emergency warning systems that never happened. The most interesting is the National Emergency Alarm Repeater System, or NEAR. Several governments designed, built and tested the system in North America and Europe. But it was never implemented.

NEAR was based on power line communications and was proposed in 1956. The idea was that every home and business would have this little black box plugged into its AC power. During an emergency, government would be able to sound a buzzer in every home within 30 seconds. The benefit of the NEAR warning was that it did not require broadcasters, and would work even if citizens did not have a radio or television turned on, or a siren in the neighborhood. Power utilities would become emergency broadcasters.

The program ran from 1956-1966. Thousands of these NEAR warning devices were manufactured and tested in several communities. Although sponsored by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, there was a lot of confusion about the roll-out. The devices cost around five dollars to manufacture at the time, which was not cheap. It was unclear who would pay the cost or how their use would be mandated. A December 1961 article in Electrical World described these uncertainties. While the Office of Civil Defense viewed NEAR as a done deal, the power utilities indicated they had received no communication or instructions from government. Not surprisingly, each party thought someone else should pay the freight. And while the system was tested in several jurisdictions between 1962-1964, it does not appear any of the issues were resolved.

By 1963, the new Emergency Broadcast System was created with broadcasters. In 1966, NEAR was discontinued and a large inventory of “black boxes” was scrapped. Historians believe that 100,000 of these receivers were produced at a cost of $5-10 million, and another million was spent on research and development. Only around 1500 were ever used in a few tests.

NEAR Warning Power Line Communication

Authorities would send the emergency signal via a 270 Hz tone over utility power lines. Originally, the tone was to be at 240 Hz, but these were interfered with by power devices. According to the patent, the tone was to be transmitted over a 50 kHz carrier wave for three minutes. Hams would recognize the NEAR warning as a form of power line communication.

There are many reasons the NEAR warning system might not have worked very well. First, what do you do when you hear the buzzer (other than being alarmed?) Second, what if the power went out? Clearly an EMP from a nuclear blast would have cause massive power failures. Third, would citizens really pay $5-$10 for these devices and how many would actually do so?

All in all, a little known chapter in emergency broadcasting history about the expensive system that never was. If you want to find out more, watch Season 7 Episode 8 of History Detectives on PBS.

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